Martin Kariongi

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2003
This description of Martin Kariongi's work was prepared when Martin Kariongi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


A Maasai who grew up in northern Tanzania, Martin Saning'o Kariongi is enabling an economic and social transformation within the Maasai community that will allow this group, and others like it, to secure a place in a rapidly modernizing world.

The New Idea

Numbering as many as 1.5 million, the Maasai are popularized as fierce warriors who are proud of their traditions and averse to change; they maintain lifestyles inconsistent with the trends of modern societies: urbanization, private ownership of land, and cash economies. Martin sees that this moment of greatest pressure on their traditional way of life presents an opportunity for Maasai people to examine who they are, reject aspects of their tradition that exclude or harm certain of their members, and carve out an economic niche that will allow them to survive as herders. Through a web of strategies–which include developing a communication infrastructure to link villages and improving veterinary services to support a commercial milk industry–Martin is positioning members of this pastoral group to resist abuse and exploitation, guide the adoption of democratic governance at every level of their society, and foster an appreciation of their lifestyle among non-Maasai. To capture and share his vision, he plans to produce video documentaries and has begun working directly with other tribal groups who face similar challenges.

The Problem

Covering much of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya, the Maasai live in villages of 20 or 30 families totaling between 100 and 150 people. Most lack access to formal schooling, healthcare, and other basic services. They are pastoralists–they herd goats and cattle. The latter provide milk and blood for daily sustenance and hold a sacred place in the minds and beliefs of the people. Cows are power and status; they are the unit of currency, and they can be traded for goods, even for wives. Their seminomadic way of life further complicates the way forward as they do not own land but need a lot of it for their herds.

Like some other tribal groups in East Africa and many around the world, the Maasai are seen and treated by many of their non-Maasai neighbors as less than human. Their perceived primitivism has exposed them to oppressive actions on the parts of governments and religious groups that have tried both to force settlement and to force the adoption of Western values and beliefs. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Tanzanian Army set fire to villages and cattle and moved many Maasai into camps. While such raids have ceased, discrimination continues. Maasai people are often denied access to public transportation, hotels, and restaurants. This long history of abuse and conflict has given rise to militancy among some Maasai and contributed to the loss of pride and dignity among others. Neither response fosters healthy citizen action.

For Maasai people, tradition is a source of cultural texture and richness; it also fuels intertribal conflict and supports practices that violate the rights and health of some of its members. For example, circumcision of teenagers–both boys and girls–is a central rite of passage, but in the case of girls, it can result in death from blood loss or infection, or for those who survive, in health and reproductive complications that last a lifetime. The Maasai are an extraordinary pastoral group–one faced with unique challenges in an increasingly culturally integrated and globalized world.

The Strategy

While Maasai people share a common language and common traditions, Martin sees that they are especially vulnerable among tribal people in East Africa because they lack a system of central governance. To address the need for internal coordination and communication on the one hand, and credibility with non-Maasai actors (including both the governments of Tanzania and Kenya and various international rights groups) on the other, he formed a membership organization, the first of its kind. Its volunteer staff (nearly half of whom are women) coordinate the organization's activities from four hubs spread across the vast region in which the Tanzanian Maasai live. A five-member management team guides efforts in health, education, natural resources management, advocacy and rights, and economic transformation.

To link communities Martin is developing sustainable information and communications systems within the Maasai community that promote advocacy and education. As many Maasai cannot read, community radio is one appropriate means of reaching them. Martin and his team spark dialogue within the disperse community and raise awareness internally of important health and social concerns. In the next two years, he plans to introduce radio listeners' surveys and to lobby for reduced broadcasting license fees and the freeing of airwaves by the government of Tanzania. These changes, joined with technical improvements like the acquisition of a power generator, will help Martin make his radio outreach efforts more effective, extending to cover much, and eventually, all of the Maasai region.

Through radio programs, roundtable discussion, and festivals, Martin and his staff prepare a fertile ground for self-examination and collective action. Martin sees that a stance of cultural preservation to the exclusion of change not only leads to further discrimination, isolation, and economic impossibility, but also contradicts one of his main objectives: to protect the rights of people. He encourages the Maasai to examine their own traditions and identify those customs that result in abuse or exclusion of certain of their members. Change is slow, but Martin sees clear progress. The practice of female circumcism is becoming much less frequent; women are realizing new roles in village life and recognizing their rights to property ownership, inheritance, education, and healthcare; and parents are more open to their children attending village schools.

Martin and his team have formed 21 primary schools; 54 preschools; six community libraries and resource centers in Arusha village, Terrat village, Orkesumet village, Osugat village, Kisiwani village, and Kalalani village. Enrollment (including enrollment of girls) has increased significantly during the period 2000-2002.

To facilitate transformation of the economic system of the Maasai, Martin helps villages both diversify the pastoral economics and meet existing market needs. Livestock cultivation is key. Martin teaches Maasai veterinary services and techniques and sensitizes them about the use of both modern and traditional veterinary medicine. He has set up six veterinary suppliers in pastoralist areas. As a result of his vaccination campaigns, pastoralists have begun to use modern treatments and methods of livestock management, allowing animals to live healthier, longer, more productive lives–and produce a lot more milk. Martin has helped villages set up cooperatives to supply fresh milk in large quantities to neighboring towns, an example of the kind of initiative that will allow the Maasai to continue their seminomadic lifestyle.

In the next few years, Martin aims to draw in the rest of the Maasai (he estimates that his efforts now reach about half the population). In addition, he has begun to connect with international rights groups. This has two benefits: one, support from such groups allows the Maasai greater leverage with the governments that oversee land rights and resource allocation; second, such groups will provide a vehicle for sharing what he has learned with indigenous people around the world who face similar challenges.

The Person

Martin, now 43, grew up in northern Tanzania's Maasai country. From an early age he took note of people and institutions that aimed to mold the Maasai into modern people. Martin grew up in the fold of the Lutheran Church, which provided him with formal education and sponsored his first trip to the world outside Maasailand. In 1987 he went to West Germany, where he joined a three-month study tour of community health and ministry. As he grew older, though, he began to see a less favorable side of the church. He resisted what he saw as its tone of condescension toward the Maasai and other tribal groups. The aim, he observed, was to convert, not to strengthen. He asked members of his local church to give the people a choice; after much outward friction and internal struggle, he finally broke with the church.

Martin returned to Europe twice in the late 1980s for a nine-month course on development studies in Dublin and a six-month course on community eye health in London. Through these experiences, the struggles and abuse of the Maasai began to take shape in a broader context: the context of international human rights. From this exposure, he learned of pastoral people in other parts of the world. On a travel grant from an international rights and documentation group, he traveled to Australia to share best practices with the Aboriginal people there. He has advised other groups in East Africa as well, including pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in Kenya and indigenous fishing groups in Tanzania.